UW News

October 19, 2006

UW Libraries digital collections link up with Wikipedia

Ann Lally, head of the UW Libraries Digital Initiatives, was looking at statistics for the annual report last spring when she noticed something interesting: The libraries’ digital collections were getting quite a bit of traffic from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can write an article for and that is constantly being edited by those who read it. Without anyone at the UW knowing it, Wikipedia readers had inserted links to the collections in relevant articles, and other readers were clicking on those links. The most popular links were to the photos of the 1999 WTO protests.

Ever alert to increasing the collections’ use, Lally decided to insert five links to Wikipedia articles herself, just to see what would happen. So, for example, she inserted a link to the ethnomusicology instrument collection in an article on ethnomusicology, and another to the Libraries’ “Fashion Plate” (drawings of 19th century fashions) collection in an article on costume design. In a month, the links she’d inserted attracted 70 hits.

“So I decided I’d use some of my student money to have someone do some further analysis of our collections and what was already in Wikipedia and start making links,” Lally said.

Carolyn Dunford, a recent Information School graduate, got the assignment and began work in the summer. She began, she said, by familiarizing herself with the digital collections, reading the descriptions of each and poking around to make sure she knew what was in them. Then she went to Wikipedia and began to search.

Some of the work was really simple, she said, like linking an article on Mt. Rainier to relevant photo collections. “Other things were more complex — like the history of Seattle, for example. They have the articles broken down by the time period, so you want to find the right time period. And sometimes our collection would bridge time periods so I’d have to add links in both places.”

In some cases there were no appropriate articles in Wikipedia, so Dunford asked Lally if she could write one. That work was a little more daunting, as Dunford soon recognized the nature of Wikipedia. “I realized how many edits there were per hour, so I wanted my article to be perfect before I put it up there,” she said.

When she put one article online, however, she mistakenly had quotes around the title and wondered how she could best correct what she’d done. But she said that someone else corrected the problem “within minutes.”

One of the articles she added was on James Willis Sayre. Sayre was a photographer in late 19th and early 20th century Seattle who took mostly photos of people in the entertainment industry. There are more than 9,000 of his photos online and many more in the collection as a whole.

In all, Dunford added 101 links to the UW collections in Wikipedia articles during the summer. The results have been impressive. In June of 2005 there were 102 visits to UW collections from Wikipedia; this June it was 1,253. In September of 2005, there were 151 visits from Wikipedia; this September it was 2,298.

“I can see which Web sites are referring to us and Google is always the highest,” Lally said. “But last year in September Wikipedia was number 19. This year it was number 4. And in the last month, it’s moved to number 2. So we’ve had almost as many visits from Wikipedia as we’ve had from Google.”

Why does all this matter?

“We want to go where the students are,” Lally said. “If students are using Wikipedia to start their research, we might as well make it known that there are resources locally. The other thing is, we like people to use our collections. With Wikipedia, we’re helping people to find images online that they can then order.”

The UW Libraries has 76 digital collections, and Lally said she will continue adding links to those into Wikipedia. Meanwhile, there is already an article on Suzzallo Library in Wikipedia that libraries staff plan to expand.

“Now that we’ve seen the results of deliberately linking, we’ll continue because it’s increased our traffic so much,” Lally said.